Keep it simple and people will choose

March 14, 1997

THE POPULAR vision of the future of education tells us that before long the classical model of a university will be supplemented by a flowering of forms. Course lengths will vary from a weekend to ten years. Subjects will range from the most obscurely scholastic to the immediately practical. Everywhere from factory to home will become a place of learning, connected by the Internet and digital television, and helped by CD-Roms and telephone tutors. Everyone will learn throughout life.

It is an attractive, exciting vision. But there is a crucial factor that has not received sufficient attention. Most policymakers have been worried about who will pay for this explosion of lifetime learning.

With Dearing looking at the issue, there will soon be a smorgasbord of policy options on offer, ranging from loans and grants to repayments through national insurance and income tax, to the suggestion that in 20 years time people will regularly go to their bank to take out a mortgage on a degree course.

A much larger tertiary education system cannot easily be funded out of taxation. But what of people's capacities to make choices?

The prevailing assumption has been that if you give people enough choice, they will soon gain access to the information needed to make good choices. Publishing league tables, results and Which? guides will all help to turn education into a well-informed, demand-led industry.

Such is the theory. But life is not so simple. Back in the 1980s policy-makers believed that the public were ready to become smart buyers of financial services. In the past they had relied on the nanny state and occupational pensions. They would be liberated by deregulation to buy complicated mortgages, TESSAs and PEPs, personal pensions and company shares.

What happened is a salutary warning. It was assumed that more choice and generous incentives would encourage people to save and invest more, preparing themselves for much longer retirement.The arguments were analogous to those now used by the proponents of lifelong education who want people to invest more in their human capital. But the promised explosion of saving did not happen.

Since the early 1990s the proportion of income saved has actually fallen, and more than half the population has savings of less than Pounds 3,500, far too little to cover their old age.

There are two main explanations. The first is that people became confused by the strange new financial products, and then disillusioned when it turned out that so many had been sold quite inappropriate packages. The second explanation is that people felt fatalistic: sensing that they were not in control over their own lives, they thought it better to gamble on the lottery than to save for an uncertain future.

Governments have learnt a hard lesson: markets for information do not just appear automatically. They have to be nurtured and cultivated. Indeed, it may be better to provide people with free advice from highly-qualified publicly-employed counsellors than to spend money on tax incentives.

For the education system, too, this needs to be a key part of the thinking about the future. Unless ways are found of providing much simpler, and clearer information about what courses are on offer, about how to pay for them, and about what results they deliver, the hopes of an educational revolution will not be realised. As in finance, a minority may enjoy a flowering of lifelong learning. But the rest of the population will conclude that it is just not for them.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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